“Many Americans live in a fairy tale.” Okay, I probably just offended a good chunk of people right there… let’s hit the brakes! Before I come off as the classic “arrogant traveler” archetype and further place my head under the chopping block of the patriotic, please allow me to explain. First, I intentionally used the term “many” (definitely not “all” and perhaps not “most”). Secondly, my choice of “Americans” in the assertion is directed at my own country for the specific purpose of self-reflection but is in no way exclusive to the United States as a nation. Thirdly, I am referring to Americans such as myself who have been able to enjoy a standard of living much higher than the majority of the world’s population… those of us who have never known what it’s like to live without a home, to live in constant fear of being robbed and killed for being ‘upper-class,’ to feel the sting of unbearable hunger, or to witness an invading force murder our loved ones in the name of jihad. Because of all these things, I am glad to have grown up in the fairy tale that is life in suburban, coastal California. However, the time for living in fairy tales is over; there comes a point when we must face the pain of reality and make ourselves aware of the issues that plague this world because as the world progressively becomes smaller, these problems are becoming much harder to ignore.
While spending a good chunk of this past year travelling throughout Africa (including but not limited to a study-abroad stint in South Africa and a few weeks working in Kenya), I was fortunate enough to witness the world in a view that many Americans thousands of miles away can easily avoid with the “off-button” of a TV remote. This can be described as a world of brutal hardship in Kenya’s Kibera slum, extreme racial inequality that makes American civil society seem like Martin Luther King’s dream, and crime statistics that leave many South Africans afraid to walk outside during the night for fear of being mugged, raped, or killed. While similar societal ills occur worldwide (including in the inner-city ghettos of our very own US of A), what often strikes western travelers the most about South Africa is just how apparent and extreme the contrast is between the rich and poor and how racialized these political/economic issues are, most of which can be attributed to the lingering effects of the old apartheid system.
However, what struck me the most about South Africa was not the insane divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” but rather the resolve of the many young South Africans I studied with at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to remedy these problems. As the first generation to grow up without experiencing life under apartheid (those born after 1994), there seemed to be enormous pressure places on my South African peers at UCT to fix the societal ills that decades of racial hatred and extreme poverty had created. And many have accepted the challenge indeed.
For example, every society and club I was involved with at UCT had some sort of service element to it. The Surf Club is very involved in an incredible organization called Surfshack Outreach, which seeks to provide children from the local townships near Muizenberg Beach with positive direction through surfing and after-school tutoring. The Mountain and Ski Club has a very cool outreach called “Siyenyuka,” which aims to create a platform for UCT students to interact with learners from under-privileged backgrounds and to give them the opportunity to experience unique and demanding activities in the mountains of Cape Town, thus helping them discover new abilities and passions. The UCT Underwater Club recently initiated the Marine Explorers program, in which students give up their Friday afternoons to take several underprivileged children from the Capricorn township on snorkeling sessions in False Bay, where the kids are able to learn about their environment first-hand and develop a drive for learning. Without these kinds of programs to provide new and exciting educational opportunities for the township youth, many of them would have few ways to escape the cycle of poverty after graduation— particularly the boys, who are often tempted by the freedom that the streets and gangs can provide them.
It was very humbling to be surrounded by people my age who are so dedicated to advancing their nation as a whole. Despite the ease of getting preoccupied with the comfort of the Cape-Tonian suburbs, many of my peers would take time out of their busy schedules to focus their energy on empowering youth from such rough backgrounds that most westerners such as myself cannot even comprehend living in.
This kind of drive to serve others is of course not unique to South Africa. As you read this blog post, a medically-trained American woman is flying on a plane to Liberia, sacrificing her own safety to stop the Ebola virus from taking more lives. A Kurdish 19-year-old is preparing himself for his first fire-fight with ISIL militants in northern Iraq so that his family will not be slaughtered in the name of radical Islam. The young man that just completed his PHD program is deciding to bypass a comfortable office at the university in order to provide after-school tutoring for teens affected by gang-violence in inner-city Detroit. Any 10 seconds spent watching the news can assure someone that the world is pretty twisted, but what the news doesn’t usually mention is that there are good people everywhere who are sacrificing their time, money, and well-being to make the world a better place. It’s time we got out of our comfort zone and at least tried to do the same, even if in a small way.
One of the other random thoughts I had in Nairobi while bartering with an old man for a bag of chips has to do with an interesting paradox: how is it that the United States has so much international influence, yet a general public that remains largely unaware of the global occurrences or harsh realities that the rest of the world has to deal with? Perhaps this is because gap years aren’t as popular in America as they are for Europeans or Australians, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that we are so geographically-isolated from the rest of the world. Perhaps it is also because taking time off work or studying in order to travel is sometimes viewed as “irresponsible” or “lazy” in our culture. I really can’t say for sure, but I do think that a more-global perspective can only help.
One of the things that going abroad did for me is that it challenged me to see international issues in a very human and very real way. For example, before the virus found its way to Texas, there was far less American media attention centered on the Ebola crisis. As a result, it was easy for most Americans to initially look away from the issue not because we didn’t care about the suffering of others, but rather because the Ebola outbreak didn’t yet pose a threat to us. But what if we looked at the people dying in West Africa and imagined that it was our brother or sister that had just contracted the disease and only had a year to live? It is important that we remove ourselves from our position of security if we are to properly understand international occurrences. It’s easy for non-military folks to criticize U.S. military personnel for “civilian” deaths in the war-torn Middle East, but have they ever walked the streets of Fallujah during a heat wave on patrol duty with young Iraqi teenagers on every street corner drawing AK-47’s on them? How are middle-to-upper class Americans living in crimeless, gated communities in any position to criticize Oscar Pistorius for owning a gun, although these people have absolutely no understanding of the nature of violent crime in Johannesburg, South Africa ? Even though many of these issues happen very far away, they are still happening regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. Furthermore, applying our standards of moralistic superiority to the rest of the world is not just naïve… depending on the issue, it can be downright stupid. The security and stability we enjoy in our daily lives is just not the norm.
I am of course in no position to make judgments on such political issues and I do not mean to come off as arrogant, but I do think it is important to realize how unusual suburban American society is in comparison to the rest of the world. I am grateful that I get to live in a place where the threat of violence isn’t knocking on my door, where I can wake up and attend a university that can provide me with the tools I need to pursue new opportunities in life. However, now that I am back in the States and once again surrounded by “limitless opportunity,” I find myself falling back in the trap of selfish ingratitude and regret, a trap so easy to get lost in when the comparison of poverty isn’t staring me in the face every day on my walk to school as it used to in Cape Town. My travels in Africa reminded me of how blessed I truly am and put a very human face on poverty, something that is very easy to forget when coming back to a place like UCSB where everyone I compare myself to seems to be doing “bigger and better” things. These of course were never things that I thought about when teaching basic math to my friends in Kenya or surfing with the stoked Capricorn township kids in Cape Town.
The hardest part about adjusting back into society in America after being abroad for more than half of a year was not getting back into the swing of “real life” (what I see more often as “pretend life”), but trying to view things in the same light that I used to. I grew up while abroad… it was a pain seeing how much I had changed but how little everything else back home had changed. After spending the last 6 months asking questions of Africans and Europeans alike from varying backgrounds what their opinions were on their governments, international conflicts, and the future of their respective nations, socializing with folks back in Isla Vista about relatively shallow things was difficult for me. I miss being constantly surrounded by people who wish to explore new places, who wish to learn new things, who seek to get out of their comfort zones, and are legitimately stoked to serve others. I miss interacting with internationals on a daily basis and learning about global happenings first-hand, rather than from the chair of a classroom. I miss the top-notch combat training I was getting from private security specialists and ex-military units at True Krav Maga Cape Town. I miss the epic, crowdless surf conditions of South Africa and the unparalleled weekend adventures I would make with friends from around the world. I even miss walking on my toes at night, anticipating the threat of being mugged; I would rather be on edge and acknowledge reality than live in what can often seem like a lukewarm college town, consumed by negative and superficial thoughts without being constantly reminded of how many opportunities I actually have. The truth is, I was more at home there than I have ever been here.
I realize that everything I mentioned up till this point lacks any overarching point; these are just some of the thoughts I had and ideas I cultivated while abroad and since returning to California. While I encourage everyone to at least explore their options for going abroad for an extended period of time, I would warn such people that they may not come back the same. I sure didn’t… for better or for worse. My current goal is to stop looking backwards for inspiration, but to rather look forward in life and apply what I learned while living abroad to my daily life here.